Major US research universities to share courses online

Big Ten collaboration, while limited, reflects growing pressure to cut costs

August 5, 2020
Sharing ice cream
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At least seven major US research universities have agreed to share some undergraduate courses, marking another cost-cutting reform accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic.

The agreement will let students at the participating universities take one online course per semester from a partner institution at no extra cost.

The initiative will join students as far apart as Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey and the University of Nebraska, more than 1,200 miles to the west.

The idea, said Lauren Robel, provost and professor of law at Indiana University Bloomington, was to give pandemic-burdened students “more flexibility to create the schedule that works best for them”.

Other initial participants – known collectively as members of the Big Ten sports conference – are the University of Maryland, Michigan State University, Ohio State University and Pennsylvania State University.

The Big Ten initiative reflects a growing call in US higher education, pre-dating the coronavirus pandemic, to cut costs through a variety of means including using technology to share educational resources.

Its leading advocates have included Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University, who has repeatedly prodded the nation’s educational elites to spread their teaching wealth more widely.

“That’s the future of higher education,” said Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, “and college leaders are understanding that to get through this crisis, we have to share resources and collaborate more intentionally.”

Existing opportunities for US college students to experience courses at other institutions have typically been limited to smaller campuses in close geographic proximity to each other.

An early example, the Five Colleges Consortium in western Massachusetts, includes Amherst College, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Smith College and Mount Holyoke College, where Dr Pasquerella is a former president. Other groups of colleges with course-sharing privileges can be found in and around major cities that include Los Angeles, Atlanta, Boston and Philadelphia.

In more recent years, nationwide associations such as the Council of Independent Colleges and the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities have been arranging for their members to share their online courses.

For the Big Ten initiative, the initial lists of courses available to students at partner institutions are limited or not yet even available.

And Professor Robel, who serves as chair of the Big Ten Academic Alliance board, gave little initial indication of long-term expectations for the collaboration. In her statement outlining the plan, she described the course-sharing opportunity as an option for Big Ten students “until this fight against Covid-19 is won”.

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